“Don’t be afraid to dream big,” Nirmal “Nims” Purja says in the opening voiceover of the new Netflix documentary “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible,” out now. Purja, a 38-year-old mountaineer, didn’t dream big so much as he dreamed tall.
The doc chronicles his attempt to climb all 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters in seven months. The previous record for such a feat was seven years. Climbing a single eight-thousander is a huge endeavor that can take months, inflict a significant toll on the body and requires a good degree of luck in terms of weather and conditions.
“Anything above 8,000 feet is in ‘the death zone,’ ” filmmaker and fellow mountaineer Jimmy Chin, known for the Oscar-winning climbing documentary “Free Solo,” says in the movie. “You’re breathing about one-third of the amount of oxygen that you would at sea level.”
Born and raised at a relatively moderate altitude in Western Nepal, Purja spent 16 years in the British Armed Forces, initially part of the notoriously tough Brigade of Gurkhas and then in the elite Special Boat Service unit, which is the UK equivalent of the Navy SEALs. He didn’t climb his first mountain until 2012, but he discovered he had quite an aptitude for it.
“Physically, I believe I have a natural gift. It doesn’t matter how extreme the challenge is, I’m not going to give up. I can climb with no sleep or rest at all,” says Purja, who now lives with his wife in Eastleigh, England, near where he was stationed in the military. One scene in the film has him visiting a London clinic that studies performance at high altitudes, and a clinician there says the mountain-climber possesses a unique physiology that allows him to access more oxygen at high altitudes, making for better performance both mentally and physically.
Purja and his team of Nepalese sherpas start with Annapurna, a daunting peak. “For every three climbers that make it to the summit, one dies trying,” says Don Bowie, a high-altitude climber who’s had five unsuccessful attempts in 13 years. “It gives you this sense of going to battle, and you’re going to fight something pretty mean.”
Purja and his men must climb in waist-deep snow and the danger of avalanches is ever present. But they manage to summit in late April, kicking off the challenge.
The team descends to camp for the night, only to learn there’s a climber from another team stranded up on the mountain. Exhausted, Purja and three other members of his crew — sherpas Mingma, Gesman and Geljen — head back up the mountain. (The film makes a point of naming and characterizing the various sherpas that are on Purja’s team, as sherpas have often been treated as faceless helpers by Western climbers.) They rescue the man and bring him down to camp so that he can be helicoptered to safety.
“It’s not in my blood to leave someone,” says Purja.
The next month, after reaching the summit of Kanchenjunga, the team comes across another stranded climber just 100 meters from the top of the mountain. The man was “completely messed up” and out of oxygen, Purja recalls. He and his teammates give the man their oxygen and call for help, but help never comes as night falls. Purja waits with the man for more than 12 hours, putting his own life in grave danger. The man tragically dies in his arms. From there, Purja attempts to descend on his own in the darkness, but after several hours without supplementary oxygen, he’s in bad shape himself and suffering from HACE: high-altitude cerebral edema. He starts hallucinating in the dark of night, and when he comes across another lost climber, he believes the man is a giant yeti.
He ultimately makes it down the mountain, but, after that ordeal, the chipper, somewhat cocky Purja says, “For the first time, I started to question my plan.”
But, he pushes on. The team climbs the remaining three mountains in Nepal — Everest, Lhotse and Makalu — within 48 hours, setting a new world record, at the end of May. The biggest challenge with Everest is the crowds of hundreds of Westerners and their sherpas lining up eager to summit the mountain.
“The queue was so intense, people were fighting,” says Purja. On his way down Everest, he snaps a photo of the high-altitude traffic jam that goes viral and ends up on the front page of the New York Times.
Purja next heads to Pakistan, whose five eight-thousanders are “some of the most inaccessible and dangerous in the world,” according to Chin.
Descending his first mountain in the country, Nanga Parbat, Purge slips and slides about 100 meters down the mountain before managing to grab a random rope.
“I always say to myself, I’m not going to die today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today,” he says.
The most daunting of Pakistan’s peaks is the famous K2, and when Purja and his team arrive at base camp, spirits are low. Avalanche conditions have prevented people from summiting, and there are doubts that Purja should even attempt it. Their first night at camp, Purja and his team pop open some bottles and have a party to try and lift spirits.
“Tonight we drink, tomorrow we plan,” he tells everyone.
He and his team make it up K2, climbing a particularly treacherous stretch in the middle of the night, when temperatures are coldest, so the snow is harder and the avalanche danger is lesser. Several of the discouraged climbers at base camp, including a mother of two, are able to follow in their tracks and successfully summit.
After such physical feats, it’s bureaucracy that almost curtails Purja’s success. The final mountain on his list is Shishapangma in Tibet, and climbing it requires a special permit from China. His request is initially denied, so Purja petitions government officials and urges his social media followers to write the Chinese government and demand access to the mountain. He ultimately succeeds. On Oct. 29, six months and six days after summiting his first peak, he makes it to the top of the Shishapangma.
Purja calls his dying mother from the top of the mountain and tells her “we did it.”
The film ends joyously, with Purja looking forward to future endeavors and bringing more attention to Nepalese climbers like himself.
“What’s next?” he asks. “We go even bigger. Just wait and see.”
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